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Fukushima Crisis Triggers Debate on the Future of Nuclear Energy

June 06, 2011

While Japan is still trying to cope with the Fukushima nuclear crisis - the greatest since the Chernobyl catastrophe in 1986 - the political and economic repercussions of the disaster have already spread far beyond the Land of the Rising Sun. It has not only put the governments promoting nuclear power in a tight spot, but has triggered a worldwide debate over nuclear power as a source of clean energy for the future. Till the Fukushima accident, governments around the world had embraced nuclear energy and announced their intentions to construct new nuclear plants or to prolong the life of existing ones. According to the World Energy Outlook 2010, the world nuclear capacity is expected to almost double from the current 390 gigawatts to 750 gigawatts by 2035.1 However, after Fukushima, the euphoria over nuclear energy is likely to cool down.

The Fukushima crisis has certainly affected Japan’s nuclear industry. It has spawned an unprecedented number of antinuclear protests in the country. While many Japanese are calling for immediate closure of all the nuclear plants, the anti-nuclear groups have once again raised their voices in support of renewable energy.2 The Japanese prime minister Kan Naoto has already effectively scrapped Japan’s plan for augmenting the domestic electricity supply through the nuclear route. According to him: “Under the current energy policy, by the year 2030 more than 50 per cent of Japan’s electricity will come from nuclear power generation and 20 per cent from renewable energy sources… . However, we now have to go back to the drawing board and conduct a fundamental review of the nation’s basic energy policy.”3 Recently, Kan has pledged to increase the ratio of power generation from renewable energy sources to 20 per cent by the early 2020s from the current 9 per cent.4 If Tokyo indeed decides to diversify its energy generation sources, it would be historic as Japan is at present the third largest consumer of nuclear energy after the US and France. As of now, electricity supply which is already down by almost 20 per cent after the nuclear crisis, is set to fall further as by August 2011, 40 of the 54 reactors in Japan will be shut down for checks and maintenance.5 The possibility of longer shutdowns has also been raised by the Japan Atomic Energy Agency Commission, which stated that the government should “take strict measures including halting operations” if safety measures are inadequate.6

In Europe, the Fukushima crisis has rekindled the long simmering debate on nuclear energy. The EU has already announced a review of the region’s 143 nuclear reactors to ensure their safety. The so-called stress tests of these reactors are expected to be completed by the end of 2011. Within Europe, however, the nuclear debate has reached a high point in France and Germany. In Germany, the nuclear issue is highly politicised as 70 per cent of Germans are reportedly opposed to nuclear energy. In September 2010, the German government extended the life of the country’s 17 nuclear power plants by an additional 12 years, which created a huge uproar within the country.7 However, after the Fukushima crisis, Germany had to scrap that plan. Now, in a historic step, on May 30, 2011, the German chancellor Angela Merkel has pledged to shut down all of the country’s nuclear reactors by 2022 and to find alternative sources, especially renewable energy sources, for 23 per cent of the country’s energy needs now catered for by nuclear power plants. Merkel’s announcement would make Germany the first major industrialised nation to become nuclear-free in decades.8

France, the second largest consumer of nuclear energy in the world, currently has 58 nuclear power plants, which generate about 80 per cent of the country’s electricity.9 Although President Nicholas Sarkozy has tried to reassure the public regarding the safety of the nuclear plants, the Europe Ecology-Green–Party, known for its anti-nuclear stance, has called for a referendum on whether France should give up its nuclear energy programme.10 Due to increasing public pressure, France might have to shut down an aging nuclear plant in the eastern part of the country.11

Austria, one of EU’s biggest opponents of nuclear power, has called for new stress tests on plants across Europe;12 the Swiss government has decided to phase out nuclear power by 2034, which would require the closure of its five nuclear reactors that currently provide 40 per cent of the country’s power.13 The Fukushima crisis does not seem to have affected Britain much as the government is planning to build ten more nuclear power plants, although it has given an assurance that it would re-examine safety measures.14 Spain and Portugal, however, have called for the gradual phase-out of nuclear energy.

The US, currently the largest consumer of nuclear energy, remains largely unruffled by the crisis. In the US, currently 104 operating nuclear plants produce around 20 per cent of the total US energy profile.15 Since the time of George W. Bush, the US has been promoting nuclear power as a means of achieving greater energy independence. The Obama administration, in 2010, allocated $8.3 billion to help construct two reactors in the state of Georgia. In February 2011, Obama’s budget sought $36 billion in loan guarantees for additional nuclear power plant construction. Yet, a debate is brewing in the US over the nuclear energy issue. Although the pro-nuclear elements want nuclear industries in the US to apply the lessons learnt from the Fukushima crisis, they also insist on the US remaining fundamentally committed to nuclear power and the expansion of such power as a safe and clean emissions-free source of electricity generation. The anti-nuclear groups, however, argue that the US case is not very different from that of Japan, as both the countries have similar reactors, safety cultures and concerns regarding exposing the population to radiation.16

Nevertheless, US energy secretary Steven Chu has reiterated that Washington would continue to treat nuclear energy as an element of the country’s energy arsenal and would not suspend work on new nuclear plants. However, the Fukushima crisis has prompted President Obama to ask the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to undertake a “comprehensive review” of American power plants.17 The Commission too does not appear inclined to reconsider its nuclear energy programme and has adopted a defensive approach. Gregory B. Jaczko, chairman of the NRC, stated: “At this time, we don’t have any information that would cause us to do anything different.”18

As for Russia, it continues to fast-track the development of the nuclear energy sector. In fact, the Russian prime minister stated that even after Fukushima, Moscow would not change its nuclear energy plans and would build dozens of nuclear power stations in the coming decades. Going a step further, President Dmitry Medvedev recently reiterated that: “nuclear power was safe if reactors were built in the right place and were designed and managed properly.”19 However, in response to the increasing international concerns, Russia has agreed to subject all its reactors to rigorous top-to-bottom safety checks. Medvedev has also called for stiffer international security standards for reactor building based on Russian safeguards.20

The Fukushima crisis has to some extent influenced the nuclear energy policies of Asian countries as well. While Thailand has halted the project for five nuclear plants, Malaysia has decided to review its earlier plan to build its first nuclear station in 2021.21 China and India, the two Asian giants, however, continue to treat nuclear energy as a means to power their rapidly expanding economies. China currently has the most ambitious nuclear programme, with 13 nuclear power reactors in operation, 27 others under construction, an additional 50 reactors in the planning stage, and more than 140 others at the proposal level. After Fukushima, concerns have been rising within China as it is prone to earthquakes and the likelihood of a nuclear leak also cannot be denied.22 Beijing, however, continues to support nuclear energy, although it has temporarily suspended the approval process for new reactors.23

As for India, the Fukushima crisis has raised safety concerns regarding the proposed 9,900 MW Jaitapur Nuclear power plant as it reportedly falls in a seismically sensitive area in Maharashtra. However, the Nuclear Power Corporation Ltd (NPCIL) and the Atomic Energy Commission of India are trying to allay such concerns by reiterating that a Fukushima type crisis could never happen in India as “Indian reactors are built to withstand quakes, use different technology and India follows all safety norms.”24 Still, India has set up a panel to look into backup power and cooling water sources at all nuclear plants, as the failure of these two sources triggered the Fukushima crisis. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has also called for a review of nuclear safety systems.25 However, overall, the Fukushima crisis has not prompted any serious policy change in India.

The increasing debate after the Fukushima crisis has undermined the recent renaissance of nuclear power. The coming years are likely to witness more regulation and stringent safety measures in the nuclear industry, making alternative sources of energy cheaper and therefore more appealing than nuclear energy. States could become increasingly dependent on low-carbon alternatives, some of which have not yet been proved on a large scale. If the alternative sources also fail to deliver to expectations, then all hopes for energy security would end. Only time will tell how all these factors play out in the long run. At present though there is an all-pervading uncertainty over the future of energy security.